Wednesday, December 28, 2011

School of One

I've recently been asked to help develop a pilot "School of One" program in our district. For those of you not familiar with the project, take a look here. Basically, here's how it works.
  1. Student comes into class and looks at their "playlist" - their options for what to do today.
  2. Student makes their choice. This might be small group work, tutoring on a computer, direct instruction, etc.
  3. Student gets started.
  4. Student takes short formative assessment.
  5. Teachers feed results into algorithm for all students.
  6. Algorithm output lessons and activities to be prepared.
And repeat.

The more I think about School of One, the more ambivalent I am. There are some really amazing ideas and opportunities here, not the least of which is that students are given a higher degree of control and power over how they spend their time. To me, this is the benefit. There are others, to be sure, but I think that they all really revolve around this. Choice allows education to become more personal, more meaningful.  Instead of being instructed exactly the same way as your other 29 classmates, your path is unique, based on who you are, what you're good at, and what you want to do.

I am excited to be involved, but not without some concerns and doubts. Rather than approach these as reasons not to help, I'm looking to these as the points I'll want to make sure are addressed by our work. It is the reason I am writing this post and the reason I hope you will help!

Feedback and assessment
As feedback has been one of the items I've been focusing on this year, this one concerns me. The only assessments built in are the short formatives given to student at the end of each lesson. The results are then fed back into the algorithm. If the student has demonstrated mastery, they move on. If not, they'll have to do a lesson based on the same objective again. Students involvement in this process is minimal, and there is essentially no feedback given to students. I don't like the idea that we just have a student spend another full lesson on the same content without any feedback other than the fact that they didn't get it yet. We need to do better than that.

The algorithm
This algorithm is basically supposed to work like Pandora or Amazon's suggested items. Based on your history, the available resources, and people like you, the algorithm suggests the lessons that will be the most productive for you. Without a doubt, a clever idea. There's a lot of faith placed in the algorithm, and yet remarkably little is shared and public about it. It was developed by a for-profity ed company, Wireless Generation, which is now owned by the News Corporation. That in itself scares me a bit, but I can get past that because we're almost certainly not going to be able to use it.

What scares me about the algorithm is its potential to render a teacher's observations and professional judgment inconsequential. I do not want the role of the teacher to become something like a machine operator. The entire process needs to be within our control, which includes the inner workings of the algorithm. My fear is that the central piece of School of One, the algorithm, is a proprietary blackbox.

The algorithm needs to be open source. It needs to be available to anyone and everyone, free, and without any restrictions. This process and how lessons are sequenced and chosen cannot be a proprietary secret if we really think that this model has the potential to change how we teach. Do not make this simply a tool that teachers use. Make it one they control.

The big picture
Each day's lessons are chosen based on a fairly specific roadmap of objectives that need to be covered. Even though the students path will be personalized, I'm a little anxious that we're not going to be taking students off of the path enough to really show them the world. Mathematics is much, much more than a series of facts and processes. It's a way of making sense of the world. I'm not sure how we're going to roll this in, but it will be a failure if we don't.

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